The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 200 former diplomats are alarmed at the state of American diplomacy

Mike Pompeo, left, smiles during a meeting with Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which will hold a confirmation hearing for Pompeo next month.
Mike Pompeo, left, smiles during a meeting with Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which will hold a confirmation hearing for Pompeo next month. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

More than 200 former U.S. ambassadors and veteran diplomats have signed a letter expressing alarm over the slide in U.S. leadership in the world and urging senators to grill Mike Pompeo about his plans to reverse the corrosion of the State Department if he is confirmed as secretary of state.

The letter is addressed to the Republican chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to hold confirmation hearings for Pompeo next month. The CIA director has been tapped to replace Rex Tillerson, who was unceremoniously fired by President Trump two weeks ago.

The letter does not mention Trump or Tillerson by name, but says Pompeo’s nomination is an opportunity to focus on “the urgent need to restore the power and influence of American diplomacy.” It was organized by Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Trump ousts Tillerson, replacing him as secretary of state with CIA chief Mike Pompeo

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, called the letter a “cry from the heart” for diplomats who have watched despairingly as the State Department has been marginalized and undercut during the Trump administration.

“There’s a hope maybe a strong secretary like Mike Pompeo, with a good record at the CIA supporting career people, will decide it’s time to rebuild the State Department,” said Burns, who was among those who signed the letter. “What Tillerson tried to do was a disaster for the Foreign Service.”

Word of the letter’s existence spread quickly in the foreign policy community, and it gathered signatures in less than a week as people who have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations raced to sign. They span generations, with some signatories at the end of their diplomatic careers and others who resigned somewhere in the middle.

The signatories included many former State Department luminaries, including William J. Burns, a onetime deputy secretary of state who is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Nancy McEl­downey, who used to head the Foreign Service Institute and now teaches aspiring diplomats at Georgetown University; Wendy Sherman, who as undersecretary of state for political affairs was the lead negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal; and Thomas Pickering, a retired former ambassador to Russia and the United Nations who is so esteemed that a foreign affairs fellowship is named in his honor.

The letter asks Congress to reject the White House proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by $20 billion, or almost a third, and keep it at the same level as last year.

In early budget hearings, there has been bipartisan support for keeping funding levels even.

The letter also expresses concern over the high number of senior leadership positions that are vacant, though acting officials are temporarily doing the work.

Eight of the nine senior positions are unfilled, as are 50 ambassadorships and 16 of the 22 assistant secretary positions.

Senators also were urged to ask Pompeo for his views on diplomacy’s “critical mission” in advancing American interests and values.

The fact that the letter spells out such a fundamental principal is a sign of the mounting concern among former diplomats as Trump has pulled out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-
Pacific Partnership, threatened to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal and driven a wedge between Washington and many European capitals.

Their concern grew as Tillerson imposed a hiring freeze and then launched a redesign that left many employees uneasy, even though it turned out to be mainly about improving computer systems. As diplomats felt pressured to resign or retired early to escape the demoralizing atmosphere, morale has sunk to the lowest level in anyone’s memory.

“The letter is a product of profound concern about the broad attitude of dismissiveness to diplomacy, the marginalization of professional diplomats and the corrosion of the institution,” said William Burns, who served under 10 secretaries of state and five presidents.

Burns cited the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats, not only from the United States but from more than 20 allied countries, as a classic example of good diplomacy requiring a lot of diplomats working in coordination.

Many veteran diplomats hope Pompeo’s close relationship with the president and similar views will give him the clout to demand more money and a greater role for the State Department.

Tillerson, in contrast, was known for pushing back against some of Trump’s positions, which was one of the main factors in his dismissal.

In the end, policy is determined at the White House, not at Foggy Bottom. It remains to be seen whether the administration and the diplomats share any worldviews whatsoever. Trump is the president who said that when it comes to foreign policy, “the one that matters is me.”

The letter was signed by people who remember the remark, down to the month he said it and in which interview.

“When Trump talks America first, it sounds like America alone,” McEldowney said. “Many of the decisions Trump has taken, like walking away from international agreements and rushing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, have caused us to be more and more isolated.

“But the letter itself is not advocating any policy position. It’s advocating for a robust international engagement with allies and dialogue across the board, to achieve whatever policy ends up being.”

Update: This story has been updated with a higher number of signatories.